Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Losers Weepers

Finders keepers.

It may be one of the very first unwritten rules that we learn. I learned it from a classmate in kindergarten. What looked like theft to me was, someone explained, actually fair. Somehow, the sing-song delivery of those magic words seemed to make the act of appropriation more like an innocent windfall rather than the more contradictory reality that it was.

The contradictory part is not omitted nor even disguised. Losers weepers pretty much says it all, but this we conveniently choose to ignore. The thrill of finding something overrides the certain knowledge that anything found must have been lost, by someone. Using notion that it was simply left there for us to take as a defense isn't even a necessary if we invoke the finders keepers rule. We can simply take. And we do.

When I was a teenager, I was fascinated with Egyptian antiquities. I won't claim to have been offended or in any way concerned with the ethics of archaeology or the provenance of art. I loved the gold and copper sarcophagi and the mummies therein. I spent hours staring the blue and gold scarabs, and golden treasures looted from the tombs of the Kings of Egypt.

But I didn't actually think of them as looted. I read the stories about the discovery of Tut's Tomb, and even managed to visit the Metropolitan Museum in New York during that King's famous road tour through the U.S. back in the sixties. Thanks Lynda.

It was Lynda who first informed me about the shady world of art collecting. One of her most beloved pieces of art in the world was actually a collection of sculpture fragments taken from the Parthenon in Athens. Known as the 'Elgin Marbles' after the British explorer who brought them from Greece to England, these are some of the finest examples of Greek art that we have in the world today.

Lynda, of course, had read a lot about the Elgin Marbles long before she lived in England. But one of her first excursions after arriving in 1975 was to the British Museum to see those statues. She often talked of the experience of seeing for the first time as being a very emotional and dramatic one. In spite of the fact that she was an abstract expressionist painter, she was deeply influenced by classical art of all kinds. Lynda loved art of all kinds. The Elgin Marbles just happened to be one of her first loves.

But Lynda also made it clear, whenever she waxed rhapsodic about these sculptures, that they were looted. She had to turn in some very tight circles to justify the looting, but she was enough of a realist to know that just because you 'own' something doesn't mean it's yours. Long before the talk of 're-patriating' art became fashionable, Lynda knew that someday the Greeks were going to come calling for their 'Marbles.'

As a student of art history, I too can turn in some very tight circles to justify my love for looking at things I probably shouldn't be able to see. It's too fascinating to turn away, so like rubberneckers at a crime scene, I leer and stare and soak up all the information I can. I am a part of the problem.

But, should we just stop archaeology? Just leave everything where it is? Return everything in museums?

Ok, so those are rhetorical questions. Suppose that the British Museum is seriously considering returning the Elgin Marbles. Would that make any difference? What about the Egyptian collection? The Sumerian stuff? Isn't everything in every museum simply looted or stolen?

The answer is yes. But are we seriously going to give all that stuff back? Not likely. To whom? No one knows.

Although the great age of museums is drawing to a close, even in response to the most dramatic weeping on the part of the losers, most of that stuff will stay right where it is.

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